“Totally Ekphrastic!” Picturing America Through Poetry
What would it feel like to be a flamingo? Imagine standing in an isolated marsh, your only companions a flock of pink birds. What would you smell or feel, hear and see?
Last week, I visited Thomson Estates Elementary School in Elkton. Art teacher Tori Dissinger and I chose Audubon’s “American Flamingo” from the Picturing America images. (Visit the Picturing America website for more information on this program from the National Endowment for the Humanities.) Her fourth graders have been studying and portraying natural habitats in art – a great fit for Audubon.
The students already knew a lot about flamingos: they get their color from eating shrimp, they can be five feet tall, they live in wetlands, they stand on one leg. We all tried to stand like the flamingo in this painting (not easy, but fun!). The class realized that Audubon painted the bird’s neck curving down to fit the image on his page.
The children shared what it would feel like to be “in” the scene by describing their five senses (it might smell salty, they might hear splashes or clicking beaks, the air would feel humid or breezy). Some students liked the idea that the flamingos seem free of responsibilities – they stand around doing what they feel like doing.
I offered two poetry prompts for this image. One was “When I think of a flamingo, I feel…” One child said that since flamingos are now scarce, being a flamingo and standing as tall as these birds would make him feel like a king.
The second prompt was to choose a different animal, using books Ms. Dissinger provided for ideas. I reminded students that Audubon drew some birds people had not yet identified. In their poems, students described an animal as if writing to someone who had never seen that creature.
Several students shared poems. A boy who wrote about a tiger used simile: the tiger’s stripes were “as gray as clouds” and his eyes “as black as night.” Ms. Dissinger was very enthusiastic about her students’ responses. She planned to spend more time working on the poems. I can’t wait to see the results!
Laura Shovan is a Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Education for Poetry. She blogs about writing poetry with children at www.authoramok.com.
John James Audubon; Robert Havell, American Flamingo, 1838
John James Audubon (1785-1851). Robert Havell (1793-1878), Engraver after John James Audubon. American Flamingo, 1838. Hand-colored etching and aquatint on Whatman paper, from ‘The Birds of America’ (plate CCCCXXX1). Plate: 97 x 65 cm (38 3/16 x 25 9/16 in.) sheet: 101.28 x 68.26 cm (39 7/8 x 26 7/8 in.) Gift of Mrs. Walter B. James, 1945. 8.431. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.